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it has beenA long, miserable day as Will Smith trudges through the Louisiana mud past hundreds of extras. A positive (wrong, as it turns out) COVID test on set this morning meant another round of nasal swabs for everyone. And a series of storms delayed today's filming by hours - each lightning strike requires a 30-minute break, and there were dozens.
Nothing was easy to createEmancipation,an Apple TV+ project that tells the story of "Whipped Peter," the black man whose ragged back is depicted in one of the most famous photographs of an enslaved American. The film was originally set to be shot in Georgia, but filming was moved in response to the state's attempt to enact new voting restrictions. The current location, smack in the mud about an hour from New Orleans, requires an almost daily struggle with the terrain. When I arrived in mid-July, production was already behind schedule. "We are at the mercy of Mother Nature," director Antoine Fuqua told me. "The heat, the rain, the lightning, the mosquitoes, the swamp with alligators."
And then of course there is the issue. As I watch the footage from a few feet away, Smith stands under a huge railroad bridge that the enslaved men are being forced to build. Smoke from nearby fires hangs high on the horizon, and the camera catches Smith's character whispering to his colleagues about how to find freedom, out of earshot of their Confederate captors.
"I've always avoided making films about slavery," Smith had told me about an hour earlier as we sat in a production trailer. "Early on in my career... I didn't want to show black people in that light. I wanted to be a superhero. So I wanted to portray black excellence alongside my white peers. I wanted to play roles that you would give to Tom Cruise. And the first time I thought about it wasDjango.But I didn't want to make a film about slavery about revenge.”
emancipationis different. It would be a disservice to consider this a "slave movie," Smith told me. It's going to be a David Lean-esque epic, he said, with an action movie twist. MostApocalyptoif12 years of slavery.The story itself is not (only) about the inhuman violence of slavery, but also about perseverance. It is believed that in 1863, after a harrowing 10-day journey across the Louisiana Bayou, Peter escaped the Confederacy, joined Lincoln's army, and then returned south to help liberate those he had left behind. It's a difficult story to tell, even harder to tell well, and exactly the kind that 53-year-old Smith wants to unleash on the world at this point in his life and career.
"This was about love and the power of black love," Smith said. “And that was something I could kick ass. We wanted to make a story about how black love makes us invincible.”
for decades,Will Smith was driven by a desire to become the biggest movie star in the world - early in his career he even developed a formula based on the 10 greatest blockbusters of all time. He achieved this goal so easily by observing the weekend of July 4th, 1996 (independence Day) a 2008 (Hancock) that it's easy to forget how unlikely it was for a rapper to become an actor. But over the past 10 years, as Smith's increasingly focused focus on growing as a person, a rift has opened up between Will Smith the movie star and Will Smith the man.
We got glimpses of their efforts to close that gap at times like last year.Fresh Prince of Bel AirReunion as he sat down with actress Janet Hubert and admitted his guilt over his exit from the sitcom. There was also his appearance on his wife Jada Pinkett Smith's show.Conversation at the Red TableFacebook show in which he revealed some of the most intimate details of his marriage, prompting a red-eyed internet meme for rival Cry Jordan. He embraced social media — a young man's game — with the passion of the aspiring actor he once was, not the global superstar he is today. And in November, he's set to release a memoir revealing new information about his troubled relationship with his father, his adventures in self-fulfillment during what he calls the "Fuck the 50s," and the ups and downs of his relationship with Jada. 🇧🇷
Before I spoke to Smith, his co-workers and friends kept telling me that he's in a great place right now - that he's centered, aware and even spiritual. As soon as we started talking, Smith told me that his goal now is "only to tell stories that will help people figure out how to be happy here." He continued, "The idea is that I spent the first half of my life collecting, collecting, collecting, and now the second half of my life is going to give it all away."
That means making films likeking richard,directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and due out in November, will see Smith play Richard Williams, the eccentric and headstrong father of Venus and Serena. In the great Smith tradition, it is an inspirational tale of triumph over adversity that includes a moving character study. The irascible Williams coached his two daughters with balls he collected from tennis clubs he couldn't get into, shielding them from the tennis routine and the media in such a way that he comes across as a modern-day prophet to athletes like Naomi in Osaka and Simone Biles prioritize their empowerment and mental health. Smith plays him as a grumpy, unyielding but passionately loving father. "My dad was and is way ahead of his time," Serena Williams told me over email. “You see, when someone is different — if they don't act or look like what a person thought they would act — the first reaction is usually fear. They think: How are we going to break them? My father foresaw this, but he did not allow himself or his family to be destroyed.
Smith's performance, Serena added, was so compelling that at times she had to remind herself that it wasn't actually her father on screen. "Richard Williams is a lot like my father," Smith told me. “When I first read [the script], I understood what it's like to want your kids to be successful. I used to do this quite often with my kids. I understood what it is like to form a young mind, how different sons are from daughters.”
emancipationit's an even bigger swing, the kind of big-budget script that often stays in pre-production for years, if not decades. However, by the time Smith brought the film to the studios last year, George Floyd had died and the world had changed.
"The whole world was in lockdown watching what happened to George Floyd and standing up with one voice and saying:We see it. do we agreesaid Smith. “It has never happened before and with that the possibilities are like never before. I've been trying to make films for a long time. And the amount of money Apple pays to tell the story [ofemancipation] is unprecedented. And those opportunities are there and plentiful around the world.”
In a golden age for black talent in Hollywood, funding projects that would otherwise have been overlooked, Smith sees no reason to wonder if the apple is poison. "I just want to encourage Black Americans to embrace recognition and embrace today's global opportunities," Smith continued. "I just wish we would fight less about certain things and pay attention to the big ripe fruit."
Of course I asked him whatcertain thingswe should argue less and get Smith to tone down his sentences and consider his words carefully. "This is an area full of pitfalls," he told me, before diving into one of the most contentious semantic debates in contemporary politics.
"So, 'Abolish the police. Disappoint the police.' I would love it if we just said, "Remove bad police funding." It's almost as if, as a Black American, I want to change our marketing to the new position we're in. So 'critical race theory,' just call it 'truth theory,'" Smith said. “The pendulum is swinging nicely towards us. And there is a certain humility that will continue to seize the moment for the future of black Americans, without neglecting the hardship, the pain and the emotions. This is a difficult subject, but I think the simplicity of Black Lives Matter was perfect. Anyone trying to discuss Black Lives Matter looks ridiculous. So when I talk about marketing our ideas, Black Lives Matter was perfection.”
"From that point of view, Black Lives Matter does that. 'Defying the police' isn't enough, no matter how good the ideas are," he continued. “I'm not saying we shouldn't take money from the police. I say just don't say it because the people who would help you won't.
you can't blame itSmith, if you're sure you know how best to tell a story, the man's a born storyteller. Between takes, I watched as he and his assistants reminisced about the time during filming.concussionin Pittsburgh that everyone was trying to go to an evening screening of Denzel Washingtonthe balancer,also directed by Fuqua. The driver of the car, a friend with dreadlocks named Scoty and a matching Trinidadian accent, had missed the exit - forcing her to drive 22 minutes to get around. So he lost again. "What's the use of going to the movies if you miss the trailers?" Smith yelled, telling Scoty to back up and back onto the road until they reached the exit. Smith told the story at least three times, while more and more people joined the circle - each new version with new details, new animated gestures and an even more sophisticated take on Scoty's accent - until his staff and security guards were all laughing with glee.
In November of that year, when her memoir,Or,When it hits shelves, the world gets the simplest version of Smith's own story yet. He had been wanting to write a book a few years ago when his team reached out to Mark Manson, author of the mega-bestseller.The subtle art of shutting the fuck downwhile Smith was filming in 2019Gemini man."An hour later, I'm on his private jet," Manson recalled, adding that the whole experience still felt surreal: "Parts of my brain were splashed against the wall."
The two spent a few days on the Cayman Islands, got to know each other and exchanged ideas. "I've spent my entire career hiding the real me from the world," Manson said, Smith told him. "I want this book to show people who I really am." Smith later told me that he "just wanted to completely destroy the attachment to 'Will Smith' by trying to separate the image of Will Smith from that , who I really am.” On the last day of his trip, Manson submitted a draft for the chapter. "Hell yes, hell yes!" he said exclaimed Smith and ran excitedly across the room. "That's it!"
Smith's story begins in Wynnefield, a middle-class neighborhood in West Philadelphia where his parents moved when he was two years old. "For a young black family in the 1970s, this was the possible 'American Dream,'" he writes of the tightly packed brick townhouses. In the book, he talks about what he describes as one of the defining experiences of his life: watching his father hit his mother on the head at the age of nine. It wasn't the only violence Smith saw growing up, but that particular incident, he writes, "defined who I am today." His brother jumped up and tried to intervene. Her sister ran away and hid in her room. Smith remembers being frozen, too scared to do anything. Smith never spoke about the violence to his father, who defended his son's career until his death in 2016. “My father tormented me. And he was also one of the greatest men I've ever known," Smith writes, noting that his father was the one who instilled in him his sense of loyalty and perfectionism. "He was one of the greatest blessings in my life and also one of my greatest sources of pain."
For decades, Smith saw himself as a coward. His desire to please people, to entertain the crowds, and to make us laugh, he explains, is rooted at least in part in a belief that if he made everyone — his father, his classmates, his fans — smile, they would not doing it would turn violently against him or the people he loves. If he could continue to make his mother proud of his accomplishments, he reflected, she might forgive his childhood inactivity. "What you understand as 'Will Smith,' the alien-slaying MC, the larger-than-life movie star, is largely a construct -- a carefully crafted and honed character -- destined to protect me," he writes. He later says, "Comedy neutralizes all negativity. It's impossible to be angry, hateful, or violent when you're laughing."
"I felt like a combination of the completion of a phase in my life and the death of my father. I just never would have been able to say those things about my dad hitting my mom," Smith told me. "I could never have talked about it while he was alive."
The book's writing process was difficult in part because Smith wanted to be careful where telling his own story overlaps with telling other people's stories. When the first draft of the manuscript was completed, he called the most prominent people mentioned, mostly family members and lifelong friends, to Miami. "I read everyone what I said about them," Smith told me. "I had to get 25 people to come to Miami and hear what I say because I know people are going to have to live with it forever."
This meeting was the first time Will spoke to his mother about the number of times his father had hit her. "It was literally the first time we've talked about it," Smith told me. “She had never heard my perception of what happened. So it was really cathartic in a way. It was great. But it's been a brutal two weeks, man. It was brutal."
The book details Smith's adolescence: how he went from high school rapping in his friend DJ Jazzy Jeff's basement to duo and becoming the first hip-hop artist to win a Grammy; how he spent his money on cars and girlfriends before borrowing a few thousand from a local drug dealer to pay for his move to Los Angeles, where he eventually auditioned for the lead roleÖ Fresh Prince of Bel Airat a party at Quincy Jones' house; how he attacked his first love after she had an affair; how his first marriage to Sheree Zampino ended under the weight of his growing ambition as divorce papers were filed on Valentine's Day; and how his jealousy of Tupac Shakur, a close childhood friend of his second wife Jada, prevented him from speaking to the legendary rapper before his death.
Manson said he told Smith that "one of the conditions for this to work for me was that everything had to be on the table. We can't have a publicist come in and say, 'No, this chapter has to end.'” Smith was more than just a game, Manson recalls: “Throughout the trial, certain things came up and he said, 'Why not, let's go , put it on.” I was worried that many things would be dropped. He really surprised me. "Yeah, that's a bit ugly. Let's keep him there.« 🇧🇷
Most notably, however, the book provides a detailed account of Smith's conscious quest to become the world's greatest movie star. "I wanted to do what Eddie Murphy did. I wanted to make people feel like I felt when I first saw it.War of stars,Smith writes. "I wanted to be in Eddie MurphyWar of stars.The search began with one of his first roles in 1993,Six Degrees of Separation.It was a bold venture for a rapper-turned-actor — an intellectual play based on a true story and filmed in which Smith's young gay con man tricked a string of high society New Yorkers into harboring him . convince her that he is Sidney Poitier's son.
One of those New Yorkers was played by Stockard Channing, who Smith admitted fell in love with during filming (a technique he writes he won't use again). "That's really good to hear," Channing told me with a flattering laugh. “We like each other and trust each other. That's really rare. She explained that "everything was easy since we first met... He didn't have a lot of that neurotic stuff that most of us have."
What soon followed was one of the most commercially successful sequels in film history: Smith's eight consecutive films, each grossing over $100 million at the domestic box office, are a recordÖ Hollywood-Reporter.For years, Smith's nemesis was Tom Cruise, "the only person who took a film career beyond what I could have imagined." laterbad Boyseindependence DayIn 1995 and 1996, respectively, Steven Spielberg called hoping to cast Smith for an upcoming project about a secret police force working to cover up the existence of extraterrestrials. Smith was skeptical - he had already done the police thing and the alien thing. But Spielberg insisted, and the resulting project wasmen in black,an important pillar of Smith's cinematic canon.
Those three films alone made Smith a worldwide crowd pleaser and an unprecedented breed of star: a black actor who was adored by white audiences worldwide. So after some relative flops (wild westeÖ Legend of Bagger Vance) Smith took his first major attempt at serious subjects, chronicling a decade of growth, turmoil and protest in the life of Muhammad Ali. "It's as raw and awesome a performance as you can get," said director Michael Mann, who recalls a late-night shoot in Chicago that stretched into the early hours of the morning. As the two men stood in the snow surrounded by vintage cars and storefronts, Smith turned to Mann and asked earnestly, "Can you believe people are paying us for this?"
"He has a lot of guts, artistically and as a man," Mann says, noting how difficult Ali is to play. "He's wonderfully successful materially -- and aware of it -- but he's asking himself the most serious and profound questions any of us will face in our lives."
after the popularmen in blackebad BoysHaving sequels, Smith branched out into apocalyptic science fictionI steal,starring Bridget Moynahan. In the film's most intimate scene, Moynahan first discovers that Smith's character is part robot as he methodically inspects his arm and chest. "I could never finish the recording, after the third rib he started giggling like a little girl," she recalled. "That's his charm."
A few years later, when Moynahan's relationship with Tom Brady ended — only for her to find out she was pregnant with his child, sparking a tabloid frenzy — Smith reached out to her former co-star. "He was the first to pick up the phone and say come on let's talk," Moynahan told me. "And for someone like him, it was impressive to make space in his life... I'm sure I'm not the only one. He is that person.”
"That's what my life is for," Smith told me a few days after speaking to Moynahan. Your parents, like your grandmother, were the kind of people you called on in times of crisis. And so he looks forward to playing that role for others. “It was the same with Tom [Cruise]. Tom and I became friends in the midst of their public arguments. I want to be there. If that's okay, call someone else. Call me if you need help. I love that. I love being the 2am 911 caller.
would not beto describe very preciselyorlike a happy book. It's both funny and inspiring. But even though he had achieved everything he wanted - the Grammys and world fame, a beautiful and successful wife, children who are superstars - Smith still wasn't happy. His films did not reach the same heights asindependence Dayemen in black.And her single-minded pursuit of stardom has left many of her closest relationships bruised and bruised.
"Throughout the years I've always called Denzel. He is a true sage. I was probably 48 or so and called Denzel. He said, "Listen. You have to think of it like the funky 40s. All 40s are funky." "He said, 'Just get through your 40s.' It just became the fucking 50's and I gave myself the freedom to do whatever I wanted. Many of these things are detailed in the book, and others he keeps secret. "Some things are forGQArticles and some things don't,” he told me.
And so Smith embarked on a journey to find himself and find happiness. He rented a house in Utah and was alone for 14 days. He has traveled to Peru for more than a dozen ayahuasca rituals, although he has never smoked marijuana and rarely drank. ("This was my first taste of freedom," Smith writes of his first experience. "In my fifty-plus years on this planet, this is the greatest unparalleled feeling I have ever had.") He opened a stand-up show for Dave Chappelle. He began traveling unsecured for the first time, popping up in foreign lands and weaving his way through airport crowds unescorted. "I totally opened myself up to what I think was a new taste of the fruits of human experience," Smith told me.
When he first met Michaela Boehm, an intimacy coach he has worked with for years, Smith confessed that if he could have everything in the world, he would want a harem of girlfriends. "Who?" Böhm demanded, insisting on naming specific women he would like to invite into his harem. Misty Copeland, replied Smith. And Halle Berry too. For the remainder of the session, the two researched specific women who could complete their coveted harem. The plan then was to get in touch with women.
"I don't know where I saw this or that shit as a teenager, but the idea of traveling with 20 women that I loved and cared about and all of that sounded like a great idea," Smith told me . with a laugh. "And then after we played a little bit, I was like, 'That would be awful. That would be awful.' I said, 'Can you imagine how miserable?'
"What she did was essentially clear my mind and let her know it was okay to be me and be who I was. It's okay to think that Halle is okay. It doesn't make me a bad person to be married and think Halle is beautiful. While in my imagination, in my Christian upbringing, even my thoughts were sins. This was truly the process that Michaela took me through to make me realize that my thoughts were not sins and even acting on an impure thought didn't make me a piece of shit.
Smith is relatively lateEmbracing a social media career is another storytelling experience. He's become one of the hottest celebrities on the internet, offering fans and followers a glimpse of him on set, embracing weird memes, and recording TikToks and music videos specifically designed to go viral.
"That was one of the things I learned from James Avery innew prince.James made it very clear that you're not a famous rapper here," Smith recalled. "If you want to be successful, it's better to humble yourself in this craft. I've never forgotten this idea: when you start something new, humble yourself with the craft.”
He began studying Liza Koshy, who capitalized on his Vine and YouTube success in acting roles and advised Smith to stop being so perfect. Social media thrives on the perception of authenticity. It's okay if he misses a line or if his lighting isn't perfect on a TikTok. Smith began recording some of his videos on his iPhone rather than with professional camera gear. He was inspired by Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, who impressed him as they shared behind-the-scenes moments of filming — something unthinkable in the Hollywood that Smith had emerged from.
"They did outrageous things and posted pictures from the set. You can't post set photos a year before the film's release—Oh shit yeah you canSmith remembered thinking. "I just saw them inviting people into the process in a way I thought you weren't allowed to."
Bright, the 2017 film Smith starred in for Netflix, was the first to use his content studio, Westbrook Media, to produce social media off set. After an enthusiastic career as a writer of screenplays that audiences may not have seen on the big screen in years—i am the legendFor example, it took over 10 years to make - there was something exhilarating to shoot, edit and release a music video to the public in just a few hours. "It has completely changed how I interact with the world and how I approach my creative life. I wanted to build and launch quickly.”
Sometimes he comes up with ideas for his kids' posts. Other times when he's travelling, the Westbrook Media team looks to local social media influencers to host Creator Days, where he meets with many of them to create content. "Being able to do things without having an end result that had to do with being the biggest movie star in the world, back to [DJ Jazzy] Jeff's mom's basement feeling of making music. It was fun. We experimented, we tried things.
It happened to me again with social media," Smith told me. “It's a powerful way to connect with people and creatively explore what to do next. The next phase of my life will be the most creative and expansive of my entire life and career.”
Smith's foray into social media also comes at a time when he and Jada have become Hollywood's most transparent and vulnerable couple.Conversation at the Red Table, the Facebook show hosted by Pinkett Smith, comes in the role that Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil often starred on television - a place for difficult and confusing conversations about love, sex, drugs and everything in between - with his daughter Willow and Jada's mother Adrienne Banfield-Norris. Smith himself appeared on the show, primarily for a candid discussion with Jada about a period of non-monogamy in their marriage. "Seeking the truth is the only way to be happy in this life," Smith told me. "And we sort of agreed that authenticity is freedom from the shackles of fame and public scrutiny." If you tell the truth, the couple argued, you never have to fear getting caught.
as we satin a traileremancipationAs the raindrops drummed against the metal roof, Smith had a question for me. I was one of the first people he spoke to, or at least one of the few people who didn't work for him and read the draft manuscript of his book. And then he wanted to know what I was thinking. I told him the truth: I liked it, but I wondered how he decided which details of his wedding to include and which to omit.
Throughout the draft I read, Smith dropped a few hinted tidbits about marital bitterness. Jada, writes her husband, didn't want a traditional wedding ceremony but gave in to the pressure: "This would be the first of many commitments Jada would make over the years that sorely denied her own values." Years later, Smith convinced her to move into a massive 256-acre complex, which she was adamantly opposed to buying. "There's no point in spending your hard-earned money on a 'family home' your wife doesn't want," Smith writes. “You go into discord and will pay a mortgage of misery for years. Or worst."
The harsh reality for those who love a dreamer is that everything comes after the dream. As Smith's fame grew, his wife woke up in tears many mornings. At one point, she turned down an opportunity for her band to open for Guns N' Roses so Smith could continue recording.The pursuit of happiness.Things came to a head around Jada's 40th birthday in 2011. Will spent three years planning a private dinner for family and friends in Santa Fe, where he was showing a documentary he commissioned that chronicled her life and lineage traced by your family. to slavery (and in which he pursued a descendant of the white family that once owned Jada's ancestors).
When they returned to their hotel suite that evening, Jada was mostly silent. “That was the mostdisgustingI've never seen ego on display in my life," Smith recalled when his wife told him. The two started arguing so loudly that 10-year-old Willow, who they shared the suite with, came out crying with her hands over her ears and begging her to stop. "Our marriage didn't work out," Smith writes. "We couldn't pretend anymore. We were both unhappy and clearly something had to change.”
And then, somewhat abruptly, the book's narrative of Will and Jada ends. In the early version of the manuscript that I read there was no discussion of any foreign relations on his or her behalf. When I mentioned this to Smith, he asked me, "Did you feel betrayed?" Well, see, I'm a reporter. I certainly read this manuscript, ready to write down all the details of who and what Will and Jada have been up to in the more open parts of their last decade. But the reality is that much of what's missing has been publicly played. At some point, their relationship was no longer monogamous.
"Jada never believed in a conventional marriage ... Jada had family members who were in an unconventional relationship. So she grew up very differently than me. There were meaningful endless discussions about what relational perfection is. What's the perfect way to interact as a couple? And for most of our relationship, we chose monogamy and didn't think of monogamy as the only relationship perfection," Smith told me. "We gave each other trust and freedom, believing that everyone should find their own path .And marriage cannot be a prison for us.And I don't lead anyone.I don't recommend this path to anyone.But the experiences of freedom we have given one another and unconditional support is, for me, the highest definition of love. "
Smith struggled to include all of these things in the book, and it was clear that the final version could be different than what I saw. But ultimately he decided to omit many of the more personal details. There was no way to tell the parts that happened next only from her own perspective. There was no way she could tell her story without telling others as well. "It felt like it was a whole book in itself," Smith explained.
In July 2020, after public revelations of what Jada would describe as an "engagement" with R&B singer August Alsina, a tabloid frenzy ensued, and Will and Jada attended the Red Table for a 12-minute discussion about the dynamic of their marriage to have relationship. 🇧🇷 That didn't necessarily bring clarity. "The audience has an impenetrable narrative," Smith said. "As soon as the audience has decided something, it is difficult or impossible to suppress the images, ideas and perceptions." Because the impulse to do soConversation at the Red TableHad there been Alsina's revelations, a viewer might have walked away thinking that Jada was the only one involved in other sexual relationships, although that wasn't the case, Smith gently explained to me. Or take one of the memes that spawned from their discussion, a screenshot of Smith with his stern face and droopy eyes. "It was midnight and we were going on vacation the next day," Smith explained, noting that the details they discussed were years in the past at the time. "It was like, no, no, no, guys, I'm not sad. I'm fucking exhausted.
It was clear that Smith had more to say. I could feel him rubbing against the guard rails he and Jada had set up of what they would discuss publicly. He told me he would speak to Jada, but when we spoke again a few weeks later, he said he wasn't sure he wanted to go much deeper.
I should be disappointed. But after reading about the work he had done to break the affirmation addiction, to get rid of the need to please, it was hard not to be proud of him for sticking to boundaries. "It might sound hard to believe, but I'd lose sleep if I don't give you the answer I know you need," Smith told me. "I want to help you, I want you to succeed, I want you to make headlines. But I also don't want to deal with the reaction to it in the world. To say I didn't want to talk about it three years ago would have been unbearable for me.
For decades, Will Smith was kind to all interviewers. He gives you 90 minutes after agreeing to an hour. And when he's done, he goes outside to take photos with all the fans and smiles at everyone.
But will you? The real Will, not the character he plays for our benefit? He manages to say no to the hundredth selfie of the day. He manages to keep some things private, even though he knows his story would be better with a few more details.
"The biggest difference is that I'm telling the truth, even if people don't like it," Smith told me. "And Will Smith doesn't."
Wesley Lowery is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2021 issue entitled "Unvarnished."
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